Barred From That Which You Love: Lessons From the Life of Umm Salamah
Published: April 21, 2020 • Edited: October 6, 2020
Authors: Nuriddeen Knight
For more on this topic, see Faith in the Time of COVID-19
In the wake of COVID-19, we’ve all had to deal with the sudden reality that we may not be able to perform acts of worship that are most beloved to us, acts of worship that we feel bring us closest to Allah. In this time it’s easy to fall into despair and wonder how we will feel that presence while being unable to perform certain acts of worship. Yes, we know Allah is All-Hearing and All-Seeing but there are times when we feel His presence more closely than others. Perhaps it is when you go to Jumuʿah and see the smiling faces of fellow believers, or when you go to the masjid for ifṭār in Ramadan and share a meal with your community, or maybe you planned to travel overseas to spend your Ramadan in a Muslim country and now the sudden pandemic of COVID-19 makes that all impossible.
Being unable to perform various acts of worship for reasons beyond one’s control is not a new phenomenon. And not being able to perform these devotions can be one of the greatest difficulties a believer faces—to set out to please God only to be turned away. But how do we deal with this loss while not losing its underlying reality (connection to Allah)?
While it is natural to feel a sense of loss it is crucial to remember the true nature of worship. Ṣalāh, dhikr, Jumuʿah, fasting, etc. are all forms of worship but their significance lies in their underlying intention and the faith of the one engaging in them. Just as someone who has no belief in their heart won’t be rewarded for the outward act of fasting, a person of faith will not be punished for not performing an outward act of worship due to circumstances outside of their control. A Muslim is rewarded for their intention to worship God by not doing a particular act; for example, staying away from the masjid to avoid the larger harm of spreading illness.
A devout servant is one who obeys God; not one who prays when God has told them not to pray (e.g., someone in the state of ritual impurity), or one who fasts when it is best not to fast (e.g., someone who is ill) nor one who gathers for Jumuʿah when it is forbidden (by both secular law and religious authorities). A Muslim is one who worships God and that form of worship can differ for different groups, individuals, and various time periods. When a menstruating woman doesn’t pray, a sick person doesn’t fast, and Muslims don’t gather in the time of a pandemic, refraining from worship is actually an act of worship and devotion to God because it involves obeying God.
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In these times our faith is deeply tested and our conviction either secured or weakened. We must ask ourselves: are we attached to God Himself or to our ‘acts’ of devotion? Are we attached to the outward performance of worship or to its inward reality? And when we are turned away from those acts, do we turn towards or away from God?
In this matter, we can learn a lot from Umm Salamah رضي الله عنها, a devout worshipper of God who faced many barriers in her path of devotion. In these moments she always had the choice to either deepen her conviction or to turn to despair. In choosing conviction at even the most difficult points in her life she shows us that conviction and connection are always possible even as we face obstacles. Three incidents showcase this lesson best: when she was prevented from making hijrah to Medina, when her husband died, and when the Muslims were barred from making ʿumrah after the treaty of Hudaybiyah.
Umm Salamah’s first hijrah was to Ethiopia with her husband Abū Salamah رضي الله عنه where the King, who would later convert to Islam, accepted Muslims seeking asylum from Meccan persecution. While the Muslims lived comfortably in Ethiopia, some still longed to return home. Once Ḥamzah and ʿUmar رضي الله عنهم—both powerful men in Meccan society—converted to Islam, some Muslims assumed Mecca would be more hospitable and returned home. But they were wrong.
After facing continued persecution, a welcoming invitation from a neighboring clan, and God's permission, the Muslims left Mecca once again—this time in larger numbers—and migrated to Medina. The ease of this journey varied greatly. Some left boldly while others were held back by their relatives. Umm Salamah, her husband, and her son were of those stopped as they attempted to leave. She says in her own words:
When Abū Salamah decided to leave [for] Madīnah, he equipped a camel and carried me along with my son Salamah. He then led his camel out. When men of Banū Al Mughīrah (Umm Salamah’s clan) saw him, then went to him and told him, ‘There is nothing we can do to prevent you from going wherever you want; but as for this sister of ours, we cannot leave you roaming about in the land with her.’ They then seized the bridle of the camel from him and took me away from him.
When Banū ‘Abdul-Asad (Abū Salamah’s clan) heard of that, they got angry and aimed for Salamah [her son] saying, ‘By Allah! We are not going to leave our son with her since they have snatched her away from our brother.’
Then they took my son Salamah away from me.1
Umm Salamah would cry daily, longing to be reunited with her husband, the Muslims, and the Messenger of God ﷺ. If you’ve ever intended to pray only to realize your menstruation has come, or set out to fast and then fell ill, or decided to go to the masjid for Jumuʿah but couldn’t because of a national crisis, then maybe you can understand one-tenth of what Umm Salamah faced.
Abū Salamah had no choice but to leave his wife and son behind. She remained in Mecca, while constantly begging and reasoning with them to let her go. Finally, her pleas were accepted and she, along with her young son, set out for Medina. Along the way, a man named ʿUthmān ibn Ṭalḥah رضي الله عنه inquired about her journey. Since she was alone with a child and a long journey ahead, he decided to accompany her as protection. Umm Salamah said about ʿUthmān, “I have, by Allah, never met an Arab more generous and noble than he.”2
He stayed with her until they came close to where the Muslims had settled. Abū Salamah and Umm Salamah were finally reunited and able to continue their blissful union. Abū Salamah and Umm Salamah shared a deep bond and their marriage was one of mutual love and kindness.
Lesson: Umm Salamah longed to be with her husband and with the Muslims in Medina but when the time came, she was prevented from doing so. This incident did not make her lose faith. Though she cried over her loss, she did not lose her conviction. God says in the Qur’an, “Whoever fears Allah and keeps his duty to Him, He will make a way for him to get out of every difficulty.”3 When one door was closed, another soon opened. Allah changed the hearts of her family members and allowed them to let her go and she, in her conviction, left her affairs in the hands of Allah and trusted in Him to protect her and her baby while alone on her journey. She persisted in her good intention and Allah sent her help in the person of ʿUthmān, may Allah be pleased with them both. The lesson we can learn from this story is to persist in good deeds even in less than ideal circumstances.
Abū Salamah dies
Once when Umm Salamah and Abū Salamah sat together in their home, Umm Salamah remembered that the Prophet ﷺ said, “Whoever is married on earth will be married in paradise.” So she said to her husband, "Let’s make a pact not to remarry after death so we can be in paradise together.”4 Upon hearing this Abū Salamah, in his mercy, love, and foresight, responded, “No, when I die, marry someone else.” He then directed his words to God and prayed, “After I’m gone, bless her with someone who is better and will not make her sad or do her harm.”5
Abū Salamah would later die from a battle wound, leaving this earth as a martyr. On his deathbed, the Prophet ﷺ prayed over his body and closed his eyes, stating, “When the soul is taken away, the sight follows it.” As Abū Salamah’s family wept, the Prophet ﷺ advised them, “Do not supplicate for yourselves anything but good, for angels say, ‘Amīn’ to what you say. He then said: Oh Allah, forgive Abū Salamah, raise his degree among those who are rightly guided, grant him a successor in his descendants. Forgive us and him, O Lord of the Universe, and make his grave spacious, and grant him light in it.”6
Umm Salamah was overcome with grief at the loss of her beloved husband, a man who she loved and suffered alongside as an early believer. They emigrated together in the first hijrah (Ethiopia) and were torn away from each other when they attempted the second. She struggled in desperation to return to him, and now they were separated once again by the permanency of death. What could overcome such a loss but turning to God? She held onto the words of the messenger of God who said to those in pain, “If any servant (of Allah) who suffers a calamity says ‘We belong to Allah and to Him shall we return; O Allah, reward me for my affliction and give me something better than it in exchange for it,’ Allah will give him reward for affliction and will give him something better than it in exchange.”7 Umm Salamah would repeat these words continuously. She would also think of Abū Salamah’s dua and wonder, “Who could be better than Abū Salamah?”8 Umm Salamah was known to be beautiful and intelligent as well as an exceptional poet; thus, many suitors came seeking her hand in marriage. This was also done as a way to honor her husband by taking care of his widow and orphaned children. Both ʿUmar and Abū Bakr رضي الله عنهم proposed marriage but she declined them both.
The Prophet ﷺ then came and also proposed. This time she did not decline, but she hesitated when she considered her age, that she had children, and her jealousy (the Prophet ﷺ had other wives). But he ﷺ was not concerned with any of these factors, he put her doubts to rest, assuring her that her age was not an issue, that he would happily take care of her children, and that he would pray for her concerning her jealousy. She accepted his proposal, becoming one of the mothers of the believers.
Lesson: Few things are worse than the loss of a loved one and it’s easy to lose hope, go into a state of depression, and wonder if life has anything left to offer. Umm Salamah sincerely loved Abū Salamah and his loss was deeply painful for her. She sincerely believed there could be no better man than him. But instead of despair, she became more devout, holding even tighter to the rope of Allah to relieve her pain. And how did Allah reward her for her patience and love? With marriage to the best of men and the status of mother of the believers. We as believers cannot despair; no matter what we lose, we have to hope for the best and utilize our relationship with Allah to strengthen us in difficult times.
When the Prophet ﷺ received the verse, “Surely We have given to you a clear victory,”9 he knew he would soon be victorious over the Quraysh and that the Kaʿbah would be returned to the believers. But it did not happen immediately. After the truce of Ḥudaybīyah, in which many Muslims felt the Quraysh were favored, the believers were prevented from visiting the Kaʿbah and had to turn back. Despite this, the Prophet ﷺ commanded them to execute the ritual act of cutting their hair—but they refused. Umm Salamah was there on this trip with the Prophet ﷺ and she saw his anguish when he returned to their dwelling. When he told her what had transpired, she advised him to cut his hair first. This turned out to be wise advice; the moment of discord passed and the companions eagerly complied with the order once the Prophet ﷺ cut his hair.10
Lesson: Through her trials, Umm Salamah had developed the aptitude to always find a way out of a difficult situation. She saw one door closed and decided to open another and that pathway turned out to be the superior path.
To reiterate the main points briefly: When Umm Salamah was barred from going to Medina, she waited patiently; then when the opportunity came to leave, she trusted in Allah and left despite the difficulties. When her husband died, she mourned his loss but turned her sorrow into deeper religious devotion. And when she saw the difficulties the Prophet ﷺ faced with the companions, she did not despair but found an alternative way to accomplish the same goal.
In this time of crisis, Umm Salamah’s example calls on us to bear with patience, to hold fast to the rope of Allah, and to persevere. And she does this while also experiencing the sadness, hurt, and pain of her difficulties. Experiencing pain and bearing it patiently are not mutually exclusive. The COVID-19 crisis is painful; for some, it has taken away opportunities and for others, it has taken away loved ones. As believers, we do not deny the pain of these events. But as we cry, mourn, and experience loss, we utilize our faith as a means to get through this crisis. Umm Salamah shows us that we are never truly barred from that which we love. Because the believer’s true love is Allah. And He will always make a path forward to draw near to Him, “...So let them hear My call and let them trust in Me, so that they may be guided.”11
1 Muhammad A. Qutb, Women Around the Messenger, trans. ‘Abdur-Rafi’ Adewale Imam (Riyadh: International Islamic Publishing House, 2007), 110–11.
2 “Umm Salamah,” SunnahOnline.com, https://sunnahonline.com/library/history-of-islam/356-umm-salamah.
3 Qur’an 65:2–3.
4 Qutb, Women Around the Messenger, 116.
5 Qutb, Women Around the Messenger, 117.
6 Saḥīḥ Muslim, no. 920.
7 Saḥīḥ Muslim, no. 918.
8 Saḥīḥ Muslim, no. 919.
9 Qur’an 48:1.
10 Qutb, Women Around the Messenger, 120–21.
11 Qur’an 2:186.